It’s John’s turn. To brace himself for the semi-annual visit, he runs up five flights of stairs with his luggage, the roar of the Atlantic Ocean in his ears, its turquoise-blue sheet of tranquility teasing him, and he pauses, gazing over the meticulously cut grass, the groomed red and orange blooming shrubs, the palm trees whose fronds stretch to the sky. At his mother’s condo, sitting inside her window are a dozen or faded bobbleheads, their springy necks heated by the Florida sun, mocking him with their oversized teeth, googly eyes, and heads that will never be straight. He opens the unlocked door. His mother either forgets—or maybe she just doesn’t care? John has mentioned this before, Mom, at night, lock the door, and she’ll throw something back at him like, Don’t tell me what to do in my own house. Her warmth is unpredictable, stingier as she ages like her mother, his grandmother, who rarely laughed.
The hallway is lined with watercolors, vintage 1964, by an artist who specialized in NASA scenes. Beneath the watercolors, with its spirit of adventure and optimism, on the tile floor is a Hansel-and-Gretel scrim of cookie crumbles and potato chips, their imploded bags scrunched on the kitchen counter. He sets down his luggage and pulls the broom and dustpan from the closet and sweeps. Vacuuming and garbage disposal will follow.
He dimly hears the TV: a high-pitched woman’s voice from a 1940s movie. John removes his shoes but keeps his socks on—the tile floor is sticky—then texts his wife. (She refuses to visit her mother-in-law.) She texts back: Happy birthday John! We miss you already! He asks about Susan: A-plus on everything, happy, lots of friends, soccer maniac, then Steve. King of teenager sulk. His wife sounds frustrated, already given up. You just can’t do enough for that kid. John says nothing. He doesn’t know what to do either. It seems like they’ve tried everything.
John finds his mother laid out in the den, prone, like a shark washed up onshore, barely breathing, sharp teeth poised for an attack, her blouse mis-buttoned, but he’s done that too when hurried. Some easy-over egg on her blouse that’s busy with three-dimensional flowers. Reasonable that you would miss the egg. Anyway, they’ve never had the same taste in clothes. But what shocks him are her ankles: deep blue and purple, bloated, stuffed into cheap shoes, and while he examines them, trying to make sense of her condition and to not think too far into her medical future, or to judge, her eyes snap open.
“You’re here,” she says, and it almost sounds like she’s accusing him of something. Here. Not being here soon enough? Not living here in Florida? The stench of stale corn chips and mold rises from the carpet, so he leaves her side and tries to pry open a window. Corroded shut. The others too. He props open the front door. With the flick of a button, hurricane blinds roar and overhead fans whirl. He notices dark trails on the cream-colored rug: one leading into her bedroom, the other into the den, worn from continuous foot traffic, as a herd of deer does in the woods.
“I’m exhausted,” she says from her prone position.
He waits, realizing he had expected another greeting. She’s old, he supposes. He offers to get dinner ready. In his paper bag are heat-and-eat burritos. The only food in her fridge is usually rotten.
His mother rises and, with visible agony, penguin-walks, then manages to insert one of her frozen dinners in the microwave. He’s mentioned fresh fruit, a green salad occasionally, and maybe walking to the ocean or riding the elevator down to the pool. I don’t want to go to the pool. He’s heard this before but there’s always that tiny belief that people change, especially when they absolutely must.
When her food has been cooked (she sits at the dining room table, standing on her feet is torture), he removes her tray of rice and teriyaki chicken and puts in one bean burrito. The microwave starts humming. His mother abruptly appears beside him.
“Turn off the microwave,” she says.
“I have my—”
“I said TURN OFF THE MICROWAVE! Did you hear what I said? Turn the damn microwave off!”
John presses a button and the door jerks open. How easy it is to pull up his teenage self: sensitive and resentful, the boy that lived in dread of the criticisms and heart-piercing screams that seemed to come from nowhere, and for no good reason other than to humiliate him. It would have made sense, he thought, if she had been an alcoholic.
John places her plastic tray at the table along with a fork and knife and watches his mother painfully lumber to her chair. If he says anything remotely admonitory, he’ll be overwhelmed by guilt. He eats his burrito cold.
“It’s hard for you to walk,” he says. A segue into the walker.
“My legs hurt all the time,” she says.
“I’ll call the doctor, and we can go tomorrow.”
“I’m done with doctors.” She looks at him, challengingly. It’s not easy for him to bring up that lively, beautiful bride in the photo nearby, and her intelligent and handsome husband, their love crushed by his appetite for other women.
“I’m done with everything.” She picks at her food then leaves the table, and lurches painfully back to the den.